Affirming transgender rights
Citing both changing social practice and traditional Jewish values, the international association of Conservative rabbis passed a resolution on May 22 calling on Jewish institutions and government agencies to embrace the full equality of transgendered people.
The Rabbinical Assembly’s Resolution Affirming the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People begins, “Whereas our Torah asserts that all humanity is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s divine image….” It discusses historical evidence of “non-binary gender expression” in Jewish texts dating back to the third-century Mishnah. It calls on synagogues, camps, schools and other institutions affiliated with the Conservative movement to meet the needs of transgender people and to use the names and pronouns that people prefer. It also encourages Conservative institutions to advocate for national and local policies on behalf of transgender people. In light of its passing, the Jewish Independent spoke with several local rabbis from across denominations about the resolution and about transgender inclusivity in their communities.
“The statement feels comprehensive and as positive and embracing as it should be,” said Rabbi Hannah Dresner of Or Shalom, which is part of the Jewish Renewal movement. “We need always to try to get to the heart of what the halachah (Jewish law) and the mitzvot are trying to do for us. The way they were concretized in another century does not limit them for all time. Halachah is a process. I think it is beautiful when any part of the community pulls up a chair at table and says we are participating in the ongoing evolution of halachah. This is at the heart of what it means to continually create Torah, to turn Torah over and over, to continually participate in the exchange between the Holy One and human beings, which is God giving the written Torah and our response by taking it in and answering in the voice of our humanness. This is at the heart of what the halachic process is and should be in any sphere.”
LGBTQ people are fully welcomed at Or Shalom, and people are called to the Torah by their preferred gender identification. Or Shalom is currently working on infrastructural and ritual changes to be more explicitly and fully inclusive of LGBTQ people in all spheres. “There are alternatives that are easy and sweet,” said Dresner. “We just have to do our work.”
When asked what he thought of the Conservative resolution, Rabbi Dan Moscovitz of Temple Sholom, a Reform congregation, replied with typical humor: “Great, welcome to the party.” He said he views the resolution as a return to the deep values of the tradition, not a departure. “This is at the core of who we are commanded to be as human beings – to find the tzelem Elohim (image of God) inside of each individual and to not be confused or distracted by outside appearances, generalizations or labels,” he said.
The resolution is largely the same as that passed by the Reform movement in November 2015. As early as 1965, the Women of Reform Judaism called for the decriminalization of homosexuality. In 1977, Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution calling for legislation decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults, and an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians. In the late 1980s, the primary seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, changed its admission requirements to allow openly gay and lesbian people to join the student body. In 1990, gay and lesbian rabbis were officially affirmed and, in 1996, so were same-sex civil unions. In 2000, a resolution followed fully affirming sanctified Jewish unions for same-sex couples and, in 2003, there was a resolution affirming the full acceptance of trans- and bisexual people, a stance confirmed and elaborated in the 2015 resolution.
“We have trans members, both adults and children, who we embrace and welcome fully,” said Moscovitz. “We call up to the Torah by preferred gender and gender-neutral pronouns which are present on our gabai [person who calls people to the Torah] sheet…. All bathrooms are multi-gendered or non-gendered.”
Moskovitz cited the case of a bar mitzvah boy who now identifies as a female and was offered a mikvah ritual as a transitional symbol, as well as a new Hebrew name and the reissue of the bar mitzvah certificate as a bat mitzvah.
The Conservative movement has been slower to change its position on LGBTQ sexuality than the Reform. In 1990, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which sets halachic policy for the movement, stated their desire to “work for full and equal civil rights for gays and lesbians in our national life.” Nevertheless, the CJLS maintained a ban on homosexual conduct, the ordination of homosexuals as rabbis and same-sex marriage unions until 2006, when LGBTQ people were first admitted for rabbinical ordination; in 2012, the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) movement followed suit. In 2012, the CJLS allowed same-sex marriages, with the U.K. Masorti movement following in 2014. The 2016 resolution is a milestone for the Conservative movement.
Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of Congregation Beth Israel, which is part of the Conservative movement, applauds the new document. “Kevod ha’ briyot [the dignity of all created beings, cited in the CJLS resolution] is very important…. For me, the over-arching concept of respecting all human beings and making them feel welcome, bringing them into the Jewish community is vitally important and is the keystone of the resolution.”
Infeld said the resolution is an expression of foundational Jewish values. “It is critically important to recognize the humanity and holiness of every person and that’s the essence of the resolution,” he said.
Beth Israel has private, non-gender-specific washrooms available, and calls to the Torah for an aliyah are done on the basis of the gender with which the person identifies, he noted. “We don’t loudly announce our stance so much as we are very happy to have trans and gay people in our synagogue as a natural part of the social fabric of our shul, by being warm and welcoming to everyone who walks in the door,” he said.
Speaking to the JI only days after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, Infeld said, “The Orlando massacre is another reminder of the need to fight discrimination on every level and recognize the humanity of every person.”
Unlike non-Orthodox denominations, Orthodox Jews maintain traditional rabbinic stances against homosexual conduct, and behaviors such as cross-dressing or identifying with a gender aside from one’s birth gender. Nevertheless, there are a number of Orthodox rabbis and Jewish groups that are openly LGBTQ and/or call for greater inclusivity in Orthodox communities. And, in recent years, a number of Orthodox statements have been issued – mostly from within the Modern Orthodox world but also from others – calling for the expression of love, support and inclusion of LGBTQ people without condoning LGBTQ behaviors.
“We do not judge anyone here,” said Chabad Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu of Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel. “We love and welcome everyone. We follow the Orthodox halachah that the Torah only allows union between a man and a woman, but gay, lesbian and transgender people are welcomed in our community and no one will judge them or condemn them. We do not ask questions about people’s behavior or police them. We love people, and we do not make everything they do or don’t do our business. We have had and do have gay and lesbian couples here and, in the past, even one Orthodox gay couple, and they were not judged, no one is saying anything to them. Everyone is welcome here.”
Matthew Gindin is a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere. He has written more on the Rabbinical Assembly resolution on forward.com (“Jewish values tell us to back equality for transgender people – it’s in the Torah”), medium.com (“Repentance in the wake of Orlando”) and hashkata.com (“All a horrible mistake: The Bible’s supposed condemnation of homosexuality”).